POSTSCRIPT / December 27, 2018 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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Most Pinoys think US will defend them

IT WAS not surprising that 61 percent or three out of every five adult Filipinos said in the latest survey that they believe the United States would come to their succor if the country were invaded.

Post-World War II Filipinos who grew up exposed to American propaganda and Hollywood influence readily believe US commitments made in the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and the status of forces agreements signed after the termination of the military bases pact in 1991.

A measure of faith in America lingers despite some MDT provisions’ vagueness bordering on infirmity, and the ongoing feeling out between the US and China — the unnamed potential aggressor in the MDT — for mutually satisfying intercourse.

With these realities, seen against China’s intrusion and military buildup in Philippine maritime areas, Filipinos are asking just how good is America’s word to come to the succor of its former colony in the Pacific if it is attacked.

If the US (under President Trump) and the Philippines (under President Duterte) want to strengthen their still untested mutual security arrangements, it is imperative that the 67-year-old MDT be reviewed and its terms clarified and updated.

Updating is a big if. With Trump displaying lack of enthusiasm for the Cold War alliances entered into by the US as part of a multilateral global network designed to push back the communist threat, the White House does not look disposed to updating its hoary promises under the MDT.

The regional counterpart of NATO in these parts, btw, was the now defunct SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) of which the Philippines was a founding member. In both NATO and SEATO, the US was the key sponsor despite its distance from the area of concern.

Filipino diplomats familiar with the discussions have told us that the unidentified potential aggressor in the MDT is China – as it was the then Soviet Union with NATO. With China having evolved into one of the US’ biggest creditors and trading partners, however, Washington’s regard for Beijing has changed.

Manila will have to adjust to that new reality of big power geopolitics.

Renegotiating the MDT will help reveal the ulterior motive behind President Duterte’s public display of affection for Beijing, even as he passes off the love affair as part of a new independent foreign policy.

We want to know whether or not Duterte is genuinely interested in clarifying the ambiguities and mending the shortcomings of the MDT with the end in view of firming up relations with the US while carrying on with China.

We hope that with Duterte being an expert in managing tricky ménage à trois situations, he will be able to handle simultaneous relations with Trump and President Xi Jinping of China and reap benefits for Filipinos without ruining their reputation or hocking the nation’s territorial integrity.

 MDT ambiguity amounts to infirmity

THE IDEA behind the MDT is not for the US to act as Big Brother to little brown Americans, but for the two countries to support each other if one of them were attacked. They agreed to help each other build up their capabilities for self-defense.

One of the shortcomings of the treaty is that the promised American military response to an attack is not automatic. By the time the US shoots back, if it does, strategic parts of the archipelago may have been overrun by the invader.

A warlike response is subject to lengthy congressional processes that include debates especially over the wisdom of sending US troops to fight abroad and burning billions of tax dollars. In dealing with NATO, Trump has complained about the unfairness of US footing a big part of the bill.

Article IV of the MDT says that an attack on either party will be acted upon in accordance with constitutional processes and that any armed attack on either party will be brought to the attention of the United Nations for immediate action.

With China and Russia sitting as permanent members of the UN Security Council – and with Trump in some sort of modus vivendi with the two communist powers — where and when would the referral to the world body lead?

Article V says that all attacks by a hostile third party will be held as an attack on a “metropolitan area” of either party or on the island territories under its jurisdiction “in the Pacific” or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.

“Attack” has been taken to mean an armed attack. Would Chinese coast guard’s blasting Philippine equivalent vessels with water cannons while in disputed waters be deemed an armed attack? This being debatable, an instant retaliatory US response may not come on time.

There is also the need for defining what “metropolitan area” is as the location of the attack. For instance, will Panatag (Scarborough) shoal, which is within the Philippine exclusive economic zone, qualify as a metropolitan area?

The US saw to the defense coverage specifying the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific. Are Philippines-claimed isles in the South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea considered to be in the Pacific?

No doubt that any attack on US military personnel, vessels and aircraft in the Pacific, or anywhere for that matter, will trigger a quick retaliatory response. Does the Philippines have to maneuver or foul-bait an attacker into also hitting American men and vessels just to be able to invoke the MDT?

(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 27, 2018)

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